NUTRIGENOMICS 101: AN INTRO TO THE CUTTING EDGE SCIENCE OF USING GENETICS TO GUIDE NUTRITION

by Carina Morgan
NUTRIGENOMICS 101:  AN INTRO TO THE CUTTING EDGE SCIENCE OF USING GENETICS TO GUIDE NUTRITION

Imagine what your health would look like if you knew exactly how to eat based on your DNA. With the sea of nutrition information on the internet, it can feel impossible to know the best food choices for you personally. Thankfully, a new field has emerged that can give you just that – information on how your genetics influence the way you should eat for optimal health. 

Nutrigenomics is a relatively new concept in the health and wellness world, partially because science is just now getting to the point where we can use scientific methods and data to drive personal choices. The learnings unlocked by research on this front have major implications to individualized nutrition and how we treat, and even avoid chronic illnesses. 

WHAT IS NUTRIGENOMICS?

Nutrigenomics is the scientific study of the interaction between genes and nutrition. Specifically how what you eat affects the way your genes function and how your DNA influences the way you break down, absorb, and use nutrients. We’re all composed of roughly 3 billion DNA pairs within our chromosomes, and those DNA pairs are what determine our unique traits. 

Each DNA pair has what we call genetic variants, meaning that the same gene can be expressed in multiple ways, which is why we are all so unique! The Human Genome Project, which began in 1990 and finished in 2003, was a huge advancement in our understanding about genetics and what individual blueprints look like.

Nutrigenomics first started gaining attention around the wrap up of the Human Genome Project, and by 2007, researchers had begun gaining true knowledge about the interaction of specific genes on food and vice versa. 

Today, scientists are diving even deeper into this subject with intentions of thoroughly understanding how nutrition, genetics, and disease are all intertwined so we can take steps forward to avoiding chronic illness altogether.  

WHAT CAN THE FIELD OF NUTRIGENOMICS TELL US ABOUT OURSELVES? 

SINGLE NUCLEOTIDE POLYMORPHISMS (SNPs):

To answer that question, we need to start with Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (affectionally known as SNPs). SNPs are variations in a single base pair of a DNA sequence. They are a specific type of variation (there are many types of variations, and we won’t go into those in this post).

You might remember from your high school biology class that nucleotides are the building blocks of DNA, and there are 4 nucleotides: Thymine (T), Cystine (C), Adenine (A), and Guanine (G). A SNP is one change in nucleotides within a DNA sequence; for example, having a T in place of the normal A in a specific sequence. 

SNPs are common and normal; however, they also play a role in the function of the gene within which they are contained, and this can potentially have an effect on the individual.

There are SNPs that researchers have found play significant roles in chronic disease onset, susceptibility to environmental toxins, and predisposition to certain health outcomes. For example, there is one variant in the adiponectin gene where if a G is present in place of a C, risk of heart disease and obesity rises from this genetic variant. 

Scientists studying nutrigenomics look closely at SNPs and their effect on gene function to get a clearer picture of how nutrients affect SNPs, and vice versa. If you get your genome mapped, you could gain valuable information about your specific SNPs and how they may alter certain health outcomes, such as predisposition to certain illnesses, nutrient deficiencies, and toxic exposure. 

BIOMARKERS   

Nutrigenomics can also identify potential relevant biomarkers early that allow you to halt and potentially reverse chronic illness before it affects your quality of life. Research has found several genetic variants that play a strong role in the onset of obesity, metabolic syndrome, hypertension, insulin resistance, nutrient deficiencies, and more. 

This is important because for a long time, the protocol has been to wait for some kind of symptom before going to evaluate your health. By using your personal DNA to predict specific health outcomes, you can take charge of your health BEFORE you experience symptoms, making it much less likely to develop or exacerbate the health problem.

 For example, if you know that your genetic makeup predisposes you to zinc deficiency, then you can keep an eye on your zinc levels and chat with your doctor about supplementing before you ever get too deficient and experience the side effects of that deficiency. 

USING NUTRIGENOMICS TO INFLUENCE WHAT SUPPLEMENT PROTOCOL & DIET ALTERATIONS TO FOLLOW

The field can teach you which foods you may need more of, which you need less of, your specific nutritional needs, and what deficiencies to which you individually are susceptible so that you can be proactive about your health. Adding in supplements or tweaking your diet when you have this information can help to prevent the onset of disease when you have this genetic information about your predispositions. 

For example, a common SNP that has gained a lot of attention in the last decade is the MTHFR gene. Mutations of this gene (aka specific SNPs) can slow enzymatic activity in the breakdown of folate into B-Vitamins (called methylation), which is a critical function with many health side effects. If someone has a polymorphism variant that affects its function, supplementation with a methylated version of folate can help the individual avoid experiencing some or all of the health issues associated with that genetic variant. You can learn more about MTHFR and getting tested for this common SNP here

Nutrigenomics can also give you insight to food allergies and sensitivities, which can be really helpful in terms of knowing which foods will help you feel your best, and which may have a negative impact on your long-term health.

For example, there are genetic variations within people who are lactose intolerant and allergic to gluten.

NUTRIGENOMICS AND WHAT IT CAN TEACH US ABOUT  COMBATTING CHRONIC DISEASE

OBESITY 

Obesity has many implications, most notably the systemic inflammation it causes within the body. We can use nutrigenomics to look at an individual’s inflammatory biomarkers that can provide insight as to what inflammation looks like before being diagnosed with obesity, as well as what genetic variations may be contributing to inflammation post diagnosis. 

This information can affect diet and supplement choices to help mitigate the inflammatory processes going on within someone’s body. Specific genes trigger inflammatory responses, and understanding a person’s unique genetic expression of these particular genes can give insight into how to fight and reverse obesity. 

CANCER

Individual genotype and phenotype contribute to the nutrients necessary for optimal health and wellbeing. Several minerals are shown to protect against cancer, and there are genetic variants that correspond to an individual’s nutrient status of those minerals; the key players here are zinc and selenium. 

Understanding how your unique genetic makeup may influence your nutrient status of these minerals can help prevent deficiencies and thereby help protect from cancer development. 

TYPE II DIABETES

Type II Diabetes is an example of a chronic disease that has both genetic and environmental factors that play into the onset of the illness. Researchers have identified a number of SNPs that are implicated in the development of Type II Diabetes – information that’s open to the public. 

Therefore, you can use genetic testing to look for these specific SNPs to gain insight as to whether or not you have a predisposition for the development of Type II Diabetes. If you discover you’re predisposed, having the information before you actually develop symptoms can help you take preventative lifestyle and supplementation measures. 

EXAMPLES OF DIET-GENE INTERACTIONS

AMY1: 

This gene is responsible for the production of salivary amylase in the body, an enzyme that helps to break down carbohydrates. You can have multiple copies of this gene, anywhere from 2 to 14. Here’s what is fascinating about this particular gene … the more copies you have, the more you’re able to produce salivary amylase, and therefore the better you are at breaking down starches. 

This is particularly helpful when thinking about the Standard American Diet, which is very carbohydrate-dense. People with fewer copies cannot break down starch as effectively, so they don’t process carbs as well. This can lead to weight gain. 

Think about it this way – the people who seem to be able to eat “whatever they want” and not gain weight likely have a higher number of AMY1 copies, while the person who continuously diets on Standard American Diet foods and can’t seem to lose weight likely doesn’t have many copies, and therefore can’t break down carbohydrates efficiently. 

You can use this information to guide your macronutrient choices. People with higher copies of AMY1 do better on a higher carb diet, while people with fewer copies tend to flourish more with a low carb/high fat diet. 

MTHFR: 

Mentioned briefly earlier, the MTHFR gene is responsible for the use of folate in methylation. Methylation is a process heavily involved in DNA production, neurotransmitter production, cellular energy, and liver health. MTHFR also is responsible for triggering the synthesis of a protein needed to break down homocysteine, an amino acid that can be toxic when built up in the body. You can look at the MTHFR cycle in further detail here.

There are 2 known variants that have a negative impact on MTHFR function, C677T and A1298C, both of which can be tested with a 23andme genetic test. These variations cause the methylation process to slow, and intake of dietary folate can be unhelpful because your body cannot convert it into usable form. 

When this genetic mutation is left untreated, a wide range of symptoms can occur, including: 

  • Infertility
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Depression & Anxiety
  • ADHD
  • Digestive Issues, including Irritable Bowel Syndrome
  • Migraines
  • Autism

Having one of the MTHFR mutations does not mean you cannot regain optimal function of your MTHFR gene. Taking an already-methylated folate supplement can ensure you get enough active folate to continue your biological processes as normal. This can also help boost your body’s ability to take folate you eat through foods (such as spinach, asparagus, broccoli, and beans) and break it down efficiently to be used in the body. Of course, speak with a medical professional before taking any supplementation, even if you get the test on your own. 

APOA2: 

This gene helps regulate apolipoprotein A2, which is in part responsible for managing HDL cholesterol. Research suggests that an individual who is homozygous for a specific variant of this gene ( RS5082 ) experiences a loss of function in the management role of the apolipoprotein, and is linked to an increase in adipose tissue, BMI, and waist circumference. People with this specific variant will benefit from being proactively cautious about their cholesterol and fatty acid intake. 

WHERE TO GO FROM HERE? LEARNING MORE ABOUT YOUR NUTRIGENOMICS

Companies are starting to pop up that seek to help individuals understand their genetic makeup in greater detail and learn how to use nutrition to optimize their genetic expression. 

Some of these genetic companies that focus on DNA testing to optimize individualized nutrition include Nutrigenomix, Genopalate, & GX Sciences. All of these companies offer DNA testing and then use the results to guide personalized nutrition recommendations.

If you’re interested in learning more about your individual genetic makeup and how your nutrition could play into your gene expression, check one of them out to get some individualized results. Knowledge is power! 


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